I wish I had time to do critical, in-depth reviews of everything I read but alas not during the dissertation year. Still, I’ve been reading some really great writing lately. Every time I read for ten minutes or so for my diss., I treat myself with an entire issue of a magazine. It’s a fair trade.
One Story/Desiderata/Jennifer Haigh
One Story is an interesting little magazine. I really dig the concept of one story every three weeks. With so much potential reading out there in print and online it’s nice that One Story offers literature in a really consumable format. I am not always crazy about the writing they choose. While the writing is always very good, I sometimes feel like I am reading the same story over and over. Desiderata was one of those remarkable stories detailing the quotidian but revealing exceptional moments nonetheless. This is a story of a widow with a somewhat distant daughter trying to make sense of her life without her husband who is still, very much a presence in her life and in the story.
One Story/Stag/Robert McCarthy
I had a writing teacher who often talked about “muscular prose” and in reading Stag, I finally understand what he meant when using that phrase. Stag is a story about a single father, Sean, who has recently bought a new home for him and his young daughter. He has a wife who drinks too much and has taken up with the county assessor and a town who still expects him to clean up his wife’s messes. McCarthy does a masterful job of expressing a young, uncertain father’s anxieties and plays nicely if not a bit too blatantly with metaphor. Toward the end of the story a stag crashes through the sliding door of Sean’s new home and he wrestles the stag and it’s all very manly. I actually laughed while reading the mess (in all the best ways) of a scene. Hemingway would have loved this story.
Before reading AM/PM I was not very familiar with Amelia Gray’s writing. The tiny stories in this book are written so exactingly and yet they express real emotion and tenderness. Many of the stories are loosely interconnected and as a whole, the book really reveals the almost unbearable intimacy of love and friendship. One of the many things I enjoyed about these stories was the structure of each piece of prose. There were clear narrative arcs but many of the stories ended in really unexpected ways that felt both random and yet not. Some of the stories were just swollen with lovely imagery as in AM:74:
Lifting a heavy box of files had injured Carla’s back. She sat hunched at her desk, feeling foolish, wondering if old age had finally caught up. Her daughters were grown and though the men who pursued her did plenty to make her feel like a kid in college, she could see the graying around their temples, the odd areas of slackening skin that matched her own.
I also felt that the writing was very controlled–there was no overwriting or unnecessary, indulgent prose. That sort of discipline is rare in short story collections. Finally, one of the most wonderful surprises in these stories is the strangeness, humor and wit, something I always appreciate. I’ll leave you with AM:92:
“Being with you is like a plate of hair,” Andrew said. “A dainty bone china plate, covered in hair. ANd everyone at the table is watching me and waiting to see if I’m going to eat it.”
Carla looked at him and yawned. “Being with you,” she said, “is liking taking a sleeping pill.”
Put Your Head in My Lap/Claudia Smith
As of late I’ve been very interested by writing that focuses on every day life (See: Desiderata). Great writers can make the seemingly average experience interesting. Not all stories need to have these sweeping emotional highs and lows. Put Your Head in My Lap is a small collection of stories that capture every day moments in the most beautiful ways. Smith is also very skilled in painting the complex lives of young women. Her writing reminded me, in many ways, of Mary Miller. If I had to pick one favorite, it would be Hook, a story about a young girl testing the boundaries of sexuality and propriety.
How to Be Inappropriate/Daniel Nester
Daniel Nester is a witty, charming writer. I like his stuff and How to Be Inappropriate is a fun, sometimes serious collection of essays and whimsy. As I read the book I got the impression that Nester has spent his life recording his observations, experiences and neuroses for this very project. He is self-deprecating without veering dangerously into self-pity. My favorite essay (other than anything involving a list because really, who doesn’t love a list?) was Goodbye to All of Them which also recently appeared online at The Morning News. I think many writers struggle with community and in Goodbye to All of Them Nester vocalizes many of the frustrations borne of communities that spend too much time looking inward until they self-destruct. Whether you can relate to the essay or not, it is an excellent cautionary on the dangers of investing more in who you know than what you write.
I have concluded that BJ Hollars is being held prisoner in a small room with nothing but a desk and a computer, forced to crank out brilliant stories to send out in the world day and night. His story Gutted is awesome and worth the price of admission. My favorite story, however was Upon Completion of Baldness by Lori Ostlund–very quirky and smart and then at the end, almost heartbreaking. There’s also the diagramming of sentences. A woman, Felicity, returns to her lover from travels abroad and she is bald. She doesn’t explain why. She’s just bald and her baldness consumes her lover who doesn’t know how to broach the subject. Felicity eventually leaves her lover, who we’ve learned is a woman (such an unexpected surprise). Both women teach at a private school and in the final scene, the narrator finally breaks down in front of her students:
Rather, as the tears began to flow once more down my face, I blurted out–in an attempt to explain myself and perhaps offer reassurance–these words: “Ms. Shapiro is bald.”
There is, of course, much more to the story just as there is much more to the issue.
I am consistently impressed by the poetry in Keyhole. Peter Cole and his editorial staff have a real knack for selecting the kind of poetry I enjoy–realistic, crisp, no weird forms, a minimum of epigraphs. Steven McDermott’s Chicken Shit was both creepy and oddly endearing. In the story a man struggles with feeling trapped (and seduced) by the sexuality of those around him–a teenage boy at his gym, his daughter, a woman with whom he works and then of course, there is wife, the only person from whom he can exact a measure of satisfaction. As I read the story, I thought it deserved a subtle–The Straight Man’s Burden. Â Really great stuff.
American Short Fiction/Fall 2009
ASF is publishing the strongest short fiction around. I am consistently impressed with the range and quality of the stories. Josh Weil’s The First Bad Thing is perhaps the best writing I’ve read all year and I read a lot. Next month I will read something awesome and make this same declaration. At nearly fifty pages, The First Bad Thing is quite long but the pacing is perfect. The story is set in an alternate reality, a world of constant light refracted by mirrors sent up into the sky. It’s a world that is different and yet familiar. Â The writing is raw and visceral, the setting, almost apocalyptic and the two protagonists are very compelling–flawed, damaged people loving each other hard, pretending to be people they’re not, trying to break free from themselves, from unnamed pursuers. In light of recent debates about genre fiction in literary magazines, this story exemplifies a way in which genre writing can function beyond genre publications.
Annalemma deserves a list to describe their excellence.
1. They pay their writers and artists, both in print and online.
2. The book is designed in every sense of the word. It is a full color publication, flourish not often seen in literary magazines. There are of course, magazines like Ninth Letter but you expect that production quality from a publication partially backed by a graphic design program. Annalemma is an independent magazine so I appreciate the effort it must take to assemble an issue where every story includes artwork of some kind. (See: #3) It was so refreshing to see crisp, colorful images. Total eye candy everywhere. The cover is stunning. The paper feels lovely to the touch. Reading the issue is a sensual experience.
3. Art is incorporated into the issue in ways that don’t feel forced and all of the art is beautiful and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed Punta Cometa.
4. The issue is also full of word candy. Amelia Gray’s Waste is disturbing and measured and terribly interesting. I also really enjoyed Laura Owen’s Grillz, about a mother in a mental institution in the wake of her marriage ending. Very bittersweet and the story dealt with the suburban housewife perspective on race in a very subtle, interesting way. I’ve since been unable to get the song Grillz out of my mind… Damn you, Paul Wall! BJ Hollars is also in this issue with an awkward story about semi-fatherless sons and football coaches. Hollars has really cornered the market on telling a perfect coming of age story.
5. There’s a hand-printed piece of art in a lovely envelope at the back of the issue. Such a surprise and so pretty.